A few weeks ago, I asked beverage director Kira Webster what I assumed was a straightforward question. “Would you be up for teaching a class on #JapaneseCocktails?” She agreed to, but her follow-up questions highlighted that what a Japanese cocktail is might not be as simple I'd imagined.
I’ve heard people like Tim Ferriss and Anthony Bourdain talk about how enthralling yet strikingly different Japan is from the US. To try and put some guardrails around the request I so casually sent Kira’s way, I picked up a copy of the #JamesBeard award-winning book, The Way of the Cocktail, by Julia Momosé & Emma Janzen (an upcoming podcast guest). I’ve been reading it and whatever else I can find, trying to give myself a crash course on the topic.
So what is a Japanese cocktail anyway?
Momosé says the easiest to define a Japanese cocktail is by sating what it is not.
“A Japanese cocktail is not just a drink invented in Japan… Nor does its definition come just from the ingredients that go into the glass: including #saké or #shōchū in a drink does not make it a Japanese cocktail.
A cocktail can only be truly Japanese if it reflects the broader sense of harmony and interconnectedness that defines Japanese culture at large. It is about intention, mindset, and technique. About ceremony and concentration, refinement, precision, and elegance.”
When I reached out to Kira, I'm now embarrassed to admit that I was thinking about ingredients and drinks invented in Japan, but I'm glad to now have a better understanding of how to think about it.
Momosé outlines 3 principles that showcase why Japanese cocktail culture is distinct Seasonality: much of Japan’s culinary history and rituals revolve around 26 two-week-long micro seasons. Ingredients at peak freshness are often incorporated. Ingredients and styles of drinks often change along with the (micro) season.
Hospitality: there is a desire in Japanese culture put the needs of the group ahead of your own. It is brought to life in industry through intricate tailoring of the experience to fit a guest’s needs.
A premium on craftsmanship: the Japanese say it takes a least ten years to master a craft. The road to something like bartending is often precluded by multiple years of doing other bar backing and support tasks.
The commitment is often even more specific than the craft of tending bar but rather focusing on one or a handful of specific drinks. In Japan you may find that many bars have a relatively limited menu because it is not the bar's expertise nor focus. If you're visiting Japan, Momosé recommends researching a place before you go to understand if they have a focus. This also made me think of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I believe they referenced that one of the employees worked at this renowned shop for many years (maybe 5 or 7) before he was allowed to make the rice.
A Japanese bartender's approach
In 2000, Japanese bartender Kazuo Uyeda published his book Cocktail Techniques. In it he writes,
“Westerners focus on results. We at heart, respect the process…
I believe that the effort put into mixing the cocktail contributes to its ultimate flavor.”
The quote reminded me of a “No Reservations” episode where chef José Andres said of people critiquing cuisine that they often overlook the “finesse” in the task. To which Bourdain replied, “But what does finesse translate to? It translates to 'giving a shit.'” The process is not just the hours you put in to get good, but when it’s finally time to make a drink for a patron, are you just going through the motions, or are you fully present, making it with attention and care?
The US and Japan have influenced each other’s cocktail culture
An American named Louis Eppinger brought the concept of cocktails to the city of Yokohama in the late 1800s. The city's Grand Hotel served as one of its cultural exchange hotspots and is where Eppinger’s concoctions took root. From there, many Japanese people began to learn the trade, and when of all things, an earthquake damaged the hotel, it sent many of these bartenders elsewhere looking for work, which helped spread cocktails across the country.
Fast forwarding a hundred years or so, our own country’s cocktail renaissance owes thanks to Japan. One of New York’s earliest cocktail bars of this era, Angel’s Share, was opened in 1993 by Tony Yoshida. It was a longtime fixture in the city, and while it never gained the stardom enjoyed by some of the city’s most famous bars, we know that it influenced many of the people that did, like #SashaPetraske of Milk & Honey. An American man brought cocktails to Japan, and a Japanese man helped resurrect them in our country.
So there you have it, a few takeaways from my initial dive into Japanese cocktail culture. I have no doubt the waters are deep and I have a LONG way to go.
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